Weary, our brains boiled and our feet grilled over the long course of a late August day spent half riding across Montana and half standing on onramp blacktop, we climbed out of the latest car, thanked the folks who’d taken us here from Bozeman, and stumped with a hopeless feeling to this new onramp on the periphery of Billings in an evening nearly matured into night. I’d once considered Montana among my favorite states for hitchhiking, just huge empty plains where anyone driving is driving a hundred, two hundred miles and considers it just common courtesy to pick you up and take you along. But that day the state had turned on us and we’d never stood thumbing for any less than three hours at a stretch. We walked like wilted spinach.
And great, here we’d picked the one onramp on I-90 where there was already a hitchhiker, a silhouetted man dressed in shaggy black clothes and carrying a duffel bag. Negotiating how to share an onramp is one of those awkward situations not quite covered by common sense or unwritten rules of the road, and every time I’ve had to do it I’ve come away with the impression that both parties felt like we’d lost. We came up to him dejectedly.
“Good evening!” he said in a broad Manchester accent that emerged from a bottomless well of goodwill. “And how are you fine folks tonight?”
We both had to admit we were feeling a bit better than we’d just been. He introduced himself as Dale. “I’m a bit of an eclipse chaser,” he said by way of explaining what brought him here all the way from the blustering northern reaches of England. He’d watched it not far from us in Oregon when it passed over a week or so prior. I started to ask how we should share the ramp, but he looked up at the first few stars coming out and said, “No point in it, is there? I think I’m going to just set up my camp for the night over there.” He pointed to a spot halfway up to the Burger King that glowed unnaturally up the hill from us, where a clump of bushes nestled in a forgotten corner of the fence enclosing its lot. “If you want to come round there’s a nice hole in the fence just there.” And we wished him a good night and he carried his duffel bag on into the bushes.
Misty was in favor of going to bed right then, but I really wanted one last chance not to be quite so handily defeated for the day by Montana. So we stood there for a little while and tried to imagine it wasn’t quite as dark as it was. Drivers predictably ignored us. Across the street, every few minutes, speakers on the tall neon sign outside the truck stop played an unsettling recording of birds unmistakably being tortured. It was a clever poison-free way to prevent birds shitting on their sign, but its environmental responsibility didn’t do a thing to reduce its creepiness. Before too long we felt somewhat haunted, and found ourselves too asking, “No point in it, is there?”, and shouldered our packs and walked up to Dale’s home in the bushes.
He welcomed us in immediately and we spread our bedrolls out beside his cheap little tent, and then, over a couple beers I had left from the previous night in Missoula, we told each other our stories. It turned out eclipse-chasing was only part of what brought Dale here. “So I’ve got eight weeks I can be here, right, so now I’ve seen the eclipse I’m going to all the famous tourist spots in the country. And what I’m doing is I’m going to just take the piss out of the people at all of them. Like, I’m going to Mount Rushmore, and I’m going to go up there and look at it and say, ‘I reckon it looked better as a mountain.’ The entertainment value of this place is incredible! Everyone takes this country so seriously. I can’t wait to go to the, what’s it, Little Bighorn, and start asking people questions.”
And I could see it, too. Amid a crowd of RV-softened pasty doughballs all diligently reading historical plaques about Custer’s Last Stand, this stringy Mancunian pipes up, “Seems like the fairest thing would be for you lot to just give it all back to the Indians, innit? I reckon they’d be better at keeping the loonies from taking over anyhow.” And just watching the uncomfortable consternation bloom like fine jasmine-flower tea.
“So I’m keeping notes on all this, right,” he continued, “and then I’m going to go back at the end of it and write a novel. I’ve written one already before. This one’s going to be about a millionaire who’s just the stupidest, most oblivious person, and goes round the country looking at things. But I’ve got to go to the places first, I’ve got to see what the people are really like here.”
I don’t suppose there’s much that could’ve made me happier that night than mercilessly making fun of the US with an Englishman who can sniff out the ridiculous from miles away and then go poke at it repeatedly with a twig. I wouldn’t have traded our patch of dirt in the bushes, backdropped with the gentle sounds of traffic and birds in agony, for a private executive suite full of hot showers. (And someday, if he ever returns my email, I might even be able to relive the whole thing by reading his novel.)
We told stories back and forth, of trainhopping and hitchhiking and emptyheaded American culture, and eventually ran out of steam, burrowed into our respective sleeping bags, and rolled over to sleep. The next morning Dale told us it doesn’t seem like proper hitchhiking without some hiking, and wished us good luck and walked off down the interstate to try for a ride further on. I still suspect he just wanted to give us the onramp to ourselves, just because he’s a nice guy.
And in the end, despite the best efforts of Montana and North Dakota, we made it back to Minnesota, and a lot of it was slow and boring and frustrating—but, well, it was also real and irreplaceable. I figure you can have your trip comfortable, or you can have it interesting. I know which I prefer.